“It’s called gaining life back.”

The process of recovering from an eating disorder is in no way linear. It is no as simple as some people may think.

This is a long post so bear with.

Around a year ago was when my family began to worry and ask me to seek professional help. Therefore, around a year ago, I was about to begin this treacherous, contorted road to recovery.

At the start of recovery, I didn’t simply stop the countless hours of exercise and the limited eating. I was too scared to do that. The first step was acknowledging and accepting that I had an eating disorder. This first was easier than the latter. Seeing what was wrong was hard enough, but accepting it? That took at least a month. I battled with myself actively for what seemed like an endless period of time. During the eating disorder itself, before I understood what was happening, doing all the things I did with the exercise and overly restrictive eating habits, it was all passive – habits that I picked up and didn’t necessarily realise I was doing them. The start of recovery, if you can even call this stage “recovering”, is trying to find a way to stop doing these habits.

As I was still in my final year of school during this time, it was hard to change my routine of 5am workouts before school, limited food during school, then night workouts at home. It was extremely hard, in fact. I didn’t want to give up this control I had, the only sense of control I had. It was at this point I started to fight with myself. Each day was a constant uphill battle against my thoughts, as explained in my post on Tuesday, with that other side of my brain that had grown over the previous year and a half.

I also began the shouting and screaming and others who were trying to help. Trying to get me to eat, or trying to get me to stop my workout half way through. Quickly, my family began to realise that this act wasn’t helping. And then they were so supportive. They allowed me to work it out on my own more or less, and seeking help when I felt ready. I knew I was strong, but not strong enough for this. By around April, I was crying for help and that’s what I received.

I remember in March last year, my mum realised that I hadn’t had a period in a few months – this was when she took me to the GP, even though I first refused to go.

The GP wasn’t much help. This is something I want to share, but know it’s incredibly tabu. Medical students receive just short of two hours training on eating disorders during their entire seven-year degree. No wonder GPs only focus on if you’re a “healthy enough BMI” and you’ll be on your way. They add you to a waiting list for support – I didn’t hear back from the Eating Disorder Therapy Service in my area until January of this year – nine months after my first trip to the GP, and six since my consultancy with the ED service. This needs to change. You know what? Online group therapy sessions were supposed to have started the first week of February. Every week since then, I have received an email from the team, postponing the call due to “staff illness” – doesn’t this show the lack of trained professionals we have on this current issue, and the underfunding into this department of health which is crucial nowadays? To cancel the group therapy session, especially during ED Awareness Week is appalling!

Back to the story (sorry for the rant), I started to heal. So slowly. I tried to limit the exercise I did, and eat a bit more. It wasn’t until I had done my exams, the middle of June, months after acknowledging the fact, that I told myself I need to change. I think it was because school was over, and that I could break out of this routine that I was too scared of doing before. That week after my exams I was at home, and I made myself eat and cook a really health lunch every day. This was such a big step for me, as before I would only snack through the day, unless my sister, as wonderful as she is, convinced me to join her for sushi-time or cereal during the pandemic and school Easter holiday. This was a big help, as whether it was a subconscious or active act of help, she pushed me in a good way, and got my brain thinking that I really should start recovery.

Something which helped a lot was getting my mum, sister, dad to sit with me whilst I ate. The topic of food was pretty much banned in my household, as I got so anxious when people talked about it. During the pandemic, obviously this was all people would talk about, as the highlight of the day was eating dinner together as a family – maybe this was another small factor to the building of the eating disorder in the first place?

Then, I began to request going out for meals with my family – but I found it very difficult. It was easier to go for meals with my family, as they understood if I stopped eating, or started crying in the restaurant, or any of the above really, than it was with my friends. On the last day of school, my friends and I went for a meal. It was something like 4:30 in the afternoon – breaking my food rules again, having dinner not at “dinner-time”, which always had to be after 6:30pm and still is today, a rule which is hard to succumb to. It was at an Italian restaurant – obviously not my favourite cuisine. I wasn’t going to order anything. Due to the pandemic, the way to order was through an app, and everyone had to order together in order for it to be sent through to the kitchen, so they were all waiting for me. I took one look at my sister and started crying so she took me to the toilets and calmed me down. I did it! I sat and ate some of the pizza and sweet potato fries (one of my safe foods that I order at every restaurant I ever eat at, even now), taking the rest home for my dad. It was a big accomplishment and something to be proud of.

That was a big part of recovery – finding something to be proud of each day. A new milestone, a new gap. Only since starting Uni in September I have been achieving these bigger milestones – of eating three meals a day, late night snacks, double carbs, eating out with friends. And let me tell you, this feeling of food freedom is like no other.

I still have too many rules. My first is fear foods: pasta, mainly. I haven’t eaten pasta since I was thirteen I think. In the next month, I have promised myself I will do it, and have told my friends and family, who have responded that they will do it with me too. Other rules still include not eating before a morning gym session (which I should be doing as I have now turned to weight training!!), having to exercise each day (although I have actively fought against my mind with this a couple days over the last few months). On days I claim to be “rest days”, I still do an ab workout, or walk to the shops or something. I simply cannot lie around. When I wake up in the morning, I have to jump out of bed straight away, and early too. If I stay in bed past 9am, I feel a huge pang of guilt – this is something I also want to work on. I want to have a proper Sunday: coffee in bed watching the news or YouTube, doing no more than a thousand steps that day, ordering in takeout in the evening. I still have not had this day. Since recovery started, and therefore over the last two years, I have only had three days where I have done absolutely no exercise: no secret crunches or planks in my room, no secret workouts at night. These days include the past Christmas – a day which was very hard for me as I thought back to the Christmas before, something which you will know if you have read Tuesday’s post.

I have achieved a lot recently. My period has returned (yay but not yay). I enjoy going out for meals with friends – some times being harder than others. But I still have past habits and thoughts. When people talk about food too much or even argue about which take away to have, something which is a common topic in my flat at uni, I get anxious and annoyed and walk away. Things often trigger me, but I can’t expect everyone to know what’s going on. When people come into the kitchen at uni, or my family say something like, “I’m starving, I haven’t eaten at all/much today!” or “I’ve only had a banana all day”, it makes me feel terrible about the three meals I’ve forced down my throat. But I can’t expect them to know, and it is something which I unfortunately have to work on on my own, as it is my own brain.

It is a purely ongoing process. Some people think recovery takes only a couple months then, yay, you’re all healed up. But an eating disorder is a mental illness. It leaves a mark like a scorched brand in your brain, imprinted on you for a very long time, if not your whole life. These habits may possibly stay with you for this amount of time too. It is a constant battle with your mind, but each day that other voice gets a little quieter and contained. That Ellie is still there, shouting at me louder some days than others, but I have learned, to an extent, to shut her out. Again, some days that is so much harder than others, and some days, even for as long as a week, I fear that I am relapsing, if I workout lots that week, or actively not eat as much. But I know a relapse would be more painful than the original one. The effect it would have on me, my family, my friends. I’d hate them to see me go back to that dark place, and I don’t think that I could do that to myself completely.

It’s all about challenging myself every day to new things. This Sunday I want to have a proper Sunday, to end EDAW. I want to eat pasta some time next week, maybe even with garlic bread – double carbs! It’s scary, the fact that I am gaining weight, but I need to tell myself that, one, I need to, even if I feel like I don’t, and two, it’s not noticeable to anybody but myself.

As I opened with, recovery is about gaining life back, gaining freedom, gaining your old personality back. Yes, with added weight and more challenge, but don’t you miss your old self? I know I do.

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